NYO Games a time-honored tradition
Perhaps you’re training for a marathon. Or you spent all winter at the driving range shaving precious strokes off your golf game. Maybe you’re just shaking off last season and trying to shape up for a summer outside. But as we all shake off the dust and round the corner to spring, there are some Alaskans already primed for a big culmination of their sport.
They come to Anchorage from all over Alaska. They are school students competing in the NYO Games. Known in the early years as the Native Youth Olympics, the NYO Games include events based on games traditionally played in Alaska Native communities as a way to test their hunting and survival skills, increase strength and maintain endurance, agility and the balance of mind and body. The premise of each event seems simple – touch the ball, jump high, hold on for as long as you can – but as height of the target increases or the distance required to advance widens, the skills quickly approach the superhuman. You won’t see athletes in any other sport accomplish what these kids can do.
The ability to flex muscles most of us haven’t even thought about, often while maintaining steady balance and laser-like concentration is the key to most events. The one hand reach is perhaps the best example. Lean forward, balance your entire body on a single hand and reach behind and above to touch the target five feet above you. That’s just one of 10 events featured.
The best athletes can hop 150 feet across a hardwood floor on their knuckles in the seal hop. Or cling to a stick with only a wrist for minutes as their teammates carry them in the wrist carry. And if you’re thinking “I could do that,” well, I dare you to give it a try. Attempting these events would knock the wind out of the uninitiated, but even watching them leaves many spectators floored.
Although events are based on traditional Alaska Native activities, the competition is open to all Alaska students from seventh to 12th grade, regardless of ethnicity. In addition to amazing physical feats, watch closely and you’re likely to see something missing from most sporting events: teamwork that doesn’t stop with your team. It’s not about beating the other guy, but attaining a personal best. As a result, you’ll often see two competitors trading tips or giving each other advice, even while locked in what most of us would see as direct competition.
It’s an insight into Alaska’s rich cultural heritage and a friendly competition for Alaska kids all at once.
This year’s games will be held April 16-18 in the new Alaska Airlines Center. About 500 students from across Alaska assemble in Anchorage each spring to demonstrate their skills. Admission is free, so come cheer on the athletes.